The Sept. 5 Style section story "Noted With Buoyant Optimism" might have left the impression that no commercial airliner has had to ditch at sea. American Airlines spokesman John Hotard said, "There is always the possibility that one day a commercial airliner may have to ditch at sea in a manner that survivors can get out of the aircraft."
United Airlines media manager Joe Hopkins also was quoted as saying, "We've never had a ditching in the history of the airlines, dating back to 1926."
At least National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Phil Frame carefully used the phrase, "To date, there has never been a recorded ditching of a jet [my emphasis] plane by an American-operated commercial airline, unless you count celluloid."
However, a ditching in the mid-North Pacific ocean did occur in the '50s near the international Ocean Station "Victor," manned by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bering Strait. The plane was, if memory serves, a four-engine prop-driven Pan AM Clipper, and it executed a near-perfect ditch near enough to the Coast Guard vessel that many lives were saved that otherwise would have been lost at sea. The ditching was featured in magazines and news articles internationally, with a picture of the plane just as it hit the ocean.
The Coast Guard no longer maintains ocean stations in the mid-Atlantic and mid-Pacific. These stations were 110-mile-square patches of water where year-round weather observations were conducted under frequently arduous conditions. The Coast Guard vessels' combat information center kept track of commercial airline flights traversing their stations and were in constant communication with the aircraft and alert for the vessels' secondary mission of search and rescue.
Technological advances such as the much more reliable aircraft jet engines alluded to in the article and weather satellites made the stations obsolete, but pilots frequently spoke of the sense of security and comfort they had in knowing that the Coast Guard was down there to assist in case of an emergency. Those feelings are gone now.
I was a member of the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bering Strait as a young ensign. I missed the ditching but not the stories or the pictures.
GEORGE W. CONRAD
The writer is a retired Coast Guard commander.